Ellen Freudenheim, Abroad in Brooklyn



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What I Love | Ellen Freudenheim

CreditRichard Perry/The New York Times


Ellen Freudenheim, an author and activist, had visited Brooklyn only twice before she started house hunting in Park Slope in 1983. She was pregnant with her first child and living in a small Greenwich Village apartment.

“The first time was when I went to a fabulous party in a place I now know is Brooklyn Heights,” she recalled, laughing at her cluelessness. The second time was for a wedding at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture on Prospect Park West.

“I can never forget coming out of the subway at Grand Army Plaza,” she said. “There were birds, trees and this big sky. It made a big impression on me. But I didn’t really know where I was.”

Today, she knows her way around better than most. Ms. Freudenheim, who declined to give her age but describes herself as “a child of the 1960s,” has just published her fourth guidebook on the borough, “The Brooklyn Experience: The Ultimate Guide to Neighborhoods & Noshes, Culture & the Cutting Edge” (Rutgers University Press).

She and her husband, Daniel Wiener, a journalist turned financier, ultimately bought the 19th-century brick and limestone townhouse where they still live today. Ms. Freudenheim, by then nursing a newborn, wanted to stay close to home, which kept her from returning to Manhattan to do her shopping.

“There was a woman named Sharon Golden who lived on our block, and I was always asking her where to go for curtains or shoes,” Ms. Freudenheim said. “She was always sending me out to Midwood. ‘Go to Avenue J,’ she’d say. We started to joke about writing a book called ‘Mrs. Golden’s Guide to Brooklyn.’ ”

Eventually, Ms. Freudenheim and her husband began discovering Brooklyn on their own, riding their bicycles along Ocean Parkway from Prospect Park to Coney Island and visiting historic churches of Bedford-Stuyvesant. They put what they learned into the 1991 book “Brooklyn: Where to Go, What to Do, How to Get There” (St. Martin’s Press). A citation honoring the authors, presented by Howard Golden, who was then the borough president, hangs on a wall of a staircase.

Then, as now, Ms. Freudenheim approached Brooklyn as if it were a foreign country. “I’ve been trying to make the case that people who were going to spend all this money to travel abroad to see other cultures should just come to Brooklyn,” she said, citing the “authentic ethnic communities” of Bensonhurst and Carroll Gardens (Italian), Greenpoint (Polish), Brighton Beach (Russian) and Sunset Park (Chinese).

But Brooklyn was still a hard sell in 1991, when there were 821 murders in the borough. “You had to watch your back a little bit,” she said. The danger hit close to home in 1993, when a 42-year-old drama teacher named Allyn Winslow was shot dead in nearby Prospect Park by thieves attempting to steal his bicycle. “That’s when I became a gun-control advocate,” Ms. Freudenheim said.

She was a founder of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence in 1993, and the Americans Against Gun Violence “Silent March” campaign in 1994, for which around 40,000 pairs of shoes were collected, each pair intended to represent a gun death in the United States that year. (That figure, rounded up from 38,505, includes suicides and accidents as well as homicides; in 2013, the most recent year for which official numbers are available, 33,636 firearms deaths were recorded, according to government statistics.)

They brought the shoes to the Capitol, “which was a big logistical challenge,” she said. “It was in the naïve belief that if Congress knew the aggregate toll, they would do something.” In her office are posters she commissioned for various Silent Marches from the graphic designer Milton Glaser and the illustrator Seymour Chwast.

She also helped organize a protest at a United Nations small arms conference in 2001, at which larger-than-life-size puppets mocked the leaders of the permanent-member countries of the Security Council. A papier-mâché head of President George W. Bush in an Uncle Sam hat from the demonstration hangs by the doorway of the dining room.

“This is the room that made me fall in love with the house,” Ms. Freudenheim said, pointing out the carved mantelpiece, the stained-glass windows and the romantic view of the carriage house across the street. “We added the window seat, which is the best place for a conversation.”

Over a side table is an abstract map of Brooklyn called “71 Square Miles,” a print by Jennifer Maravillas, a local artist, based on a collage made from thousands of paper scraps.

Much of the art here, however, was made by her husband’s father, Sam Wiener, and paternal grandfather, Samuel G. Wiener Sr. Sam Wiener, a New York artist known for his political and satirical art, made the whimsical wooden sculptures that are found throughout the house. Mr. Wiener Sr., a Louisiana architect, made the splatter paintings that hang on the living room walls.

On a window shelf in the living room overlooking the garden, with its koi pond and blueberry bushes, Ms. Freudenheim improvised a Pop Art sculpture, a pyramid of half-pint cans labeled “Antimatter” and “Chutzpah,” which she bought at the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. “It’s this great place, with a tutoring center in the back, where they make you raise your hand and take the superhero pledge when you make a purchase,” she said.

That’s one of many tips about Brooklyn she shares with readers in her latest book. Of course, she did not write about everything she loves about the borough.

“There is a secret garden behind the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music,” she said. “I didn’t write about it. I kept some secrets for myself.”

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